The three-year investigation into who killed Sharra Ferger shifts to two imprisoned men
By CHASE SQUIRES and CARY DAVIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2001
For more than three years, Pasco County authorities struggled to solve the murder of Sharra Ferger, a 9-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted, stabbed 46 times and left in a field near her home.
They charged a neighbor of the little girl, saying that tests showed he had left a deep bite mark on her shoulder.
But DNA evidence and other dental experts scuttled their case, and the neighbor was released from custody four months later. Investigators went back on the hunt.
On Thursday, a Pasco grand jury indicted Gary Elishi Cochran, 35, an uncle of Ferger's, and Gary Steven Cannon, 20, a family friend.
A judge ordered the indictment sealed until the men, in state prison on unrelated charges, can be formally arrested. Authorities said they will have no comment until that happens, which could be as early as today.
Cochran and Cannon previously told the St. Petersburg Times they had no involvement in Ferger's murder.
Ferger's body, clothed only in a green, short-sleeve pullover shirt, was found Oct. 3, 1997, face down in a field down the street from her home in Blanton in central Pasco.
She had nine stab wounds to her head, four to her neck and 33 to her chest. An autopsy revealed that six of the nine wounds in her head perforated the skull. She had been bitten on the left shoulder, back and left hand.
The discovery evoked memories of 12-year-old Jennifer Odom, who was abducted Feb. 19, 1993, after stepping off her school bus about 2 miles from where Ferger's body was found. Her body was found six days later in Hernando County, and the murder remains unsolved.
The first public inkling that Cannon, who goes by "Steve," was a suspect came in September 1999 in a pre-trial conference between prosecutor Phil Van Allen and a judge. Van Allen said an unrelated burglary charge against Cannon stemmed from the Ferger investigation.
"Discussions revolved around Mr. Cannon's alleged or suspected participation in that death," Van Allen told the judge.
Cannon told the Times he never touched Ferger, and when Cochran was named in another brief conversation with a judge a month later, he also denied involvement.
"My right hand to God, on my mother's grave, I did not kill my niece," Cochran told the Times. "All they want to do is pin this on somebody. . . . I have never killed anyone."
Ferger's mother, Karen, couldn't be reached Thursday, but earlier this year she said she was haunted by her daughter's death and demanded justice.
Her life has been a disaster since her daughter was murdered, she said. In the aftermath, she split from her husband and lost custody of her two other children, Joseph and Crystal, as she battled addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine.
"Everyone wanted to blame me, saying I should have been there," she said.
Karen Ferger was at her job driving a forklift when her daughter, who would have turned 12 this Monday, was abducted. She spent the winter in a Port Richey halfway house and said she hadn't spoken to her ex-husband in years.
Ferger said she never suspected Cochran, but looking back she wondered if there were signs she had missed. He seemed too adamant about finding the killer, she said.
If Cochran is a killer, Ferger said, she wants justice.
"The death penalty is too good for him," she said. "I want to torture him, just like he did to her."
Cannon's mother, Edna Jenkins, has been watching and waiting for months, wondering if her son would be charged in a crime she says he is not capable of committing.
Investigators made it clear, Jenkins said, that they had DNA evidence linking a hair found on Ferger's body to a sample taken from her son.
"If they do, they need to go ahead (and) arrest him," she said. "They need to do something about it or quit slandering my son."
Cannon was in disciplinary lockdown Thursday at the Wakulla Correctional Institution, where he is serving a 15-year sentence for beating and robbing a 70-year-old man for his wallet. He is scheduled for release in 2014.
Cannon was a thin teen with a buzz haircut when Ferger was killed. He had been in trouble with drugs, but his family was supportive and begged a judge to help him kick a crack cocaine habit.
He dropped out of high school and went to work in construction.
A native of Dade City, Cannon was born in the former Jackson Memorial Hospital, which later became a sheriff's office substation. His family says he isn't a troublemaker, but when he's pushed, he pushes back.
Until he was convicted of robbery, his record showed minor driving and bad-check charges. But after hearing testimony about his robbery, Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson berated Cannon for the violent attack and said he belonged in a cage.
His greatest strengths, his family said, are his artistic skills and his ability to relate to children.
Cochran was at the Sumter Correctional Institution on Thursday, serving a five-year term for burglarizing a house in San Antonio in eastern Pasco. Because of the time he spent in a Pasco County jail awaiting trial, Cochran is scheduled to be released in March 2004.
Cochran, who needs help reading letters sent to him in jail, also dropped out of high school. His criminal record is long, but consists of non-violent charges. He spent three months in prison in 1991 for burglary and another 21-month stint two years later for burglary and resisting arrest.
His face is creased by a lifetime of manual labor and outdoor work, sometimes working in orange groves. His body sports tattoos of women's names, a panther and a bunny.
In a criminal deposition in an unrelated case, longtime acquaintance Nelda Overton called Cochran a "crackhead" and said the two fought often, but he always ended up coming back to her.
"He's like a bad seed," Overton told authorities. "You kick him out, he comes back."
Authorities originally charged Dale Morris Jr., Ferger's neighbor, with the killing, only to free him four months later when DNA evidence proved he wasn't involved.
Now, three years after he was released from jail and moved out of Pasco County, Morris, now 48, said he is making a new life.
"Things are kind of back to normal," he said Thursday. "It was a bit of a relief to hear about this today, but it hasn't been too bad for me."
But his wife, Sandra, can't shake the memory of the way she was treated when her husband was charged with the crime.
"They would talk behind my back, call me names, throw things at me, vandalized my house; it was unbelievable," she said. "I literally lost everything. We had to move away, I couldn't keep up with my house that I had bought, and I lost it. It was like starting over."
Dale Morris said his wife is disabled now, suffering from social anxiety disorder.
Morris has filed a lawsuit against the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the two forensic dentists who told investigators that bite marks found on Ferger's body matched his teeth.
The suit is tied up in court as an appeals court reviews a judge's decision to dismiss the dentists from the suit.
Oct. 3: Sharra Ferger, 9, disappears from her home in eastern Pasco County; her body is found in a nearby field. She had been stabbed 46 times, sexually assaulted and bitten on her left shoulder.
Oct. 16: Dale Morris Jr., who lived four doors away from Ferger's house, is charged with murder, based on a dental impression dentists say matched the bite wound.
December: DNA evidence fails to link Morris to the murder.
January: Defense attorneys say Morris passed a polygraph test. They submit testimony from two dentists saying he could not have inflicted the bite mark.
Feb. 27: Prosecutors drop case against Morris.
Sept. 7: Prosecutor in burglary case against Gary Steven Cannon, 19, a friend of the Ferger family, tells a judge that Cannon is a suspect in the murder.
Oct. 12: Prosecutor tells a judge that Ferger's uncle, Gary E. Cochran, 33, might be linked to case.
Dec. 10: Saying he should be "placed in a cage . . . to protect this community," judge sentences Cannon to 15 years on a strong-arm robbery charge.
Aug. 14: Cochran gets five years on a burglary charge.
Nov. 22: An appeals court overturns Cannon's earlier conviction, ruling a jury should have known the criminal backgrounds of witnesses in that trial.
April 18: Cannon is convicted on retrial. The judge who sentenced him the first time sentences him to 15 years in prison, telling him, "Your very existence is a threat to the community."
June 21: Cochran, Cannon indicted.